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Tennis: Five-centimetre miss saves Li from disaster

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Five centimetres proved the difference between Li Na taking an early flight home and staying at the Australian Open Friday after the Chinese star narrowly survived a match point against Lucie Safarova.

The gritty fourth seed, a finalist last year, was forced to rally from a set down and through a tiebreak to win 1-6, 7-6 (7/2), 6-3 in a two-and-a-half hour marathon on another hot Melbourne day.

It ensured she avoided her earliest exit at the tournament since 2008 to set up a clash with Russian 22nd seed Ekaterina Makarova for a place in the quarter-finals.

But it was a narrow escape for Li, who self-destructed in the first set and had to draw on all her experience to find a way past the 26th-seeded Czech, who was playing with her right thigh heavily strapped and her left shoulder taped.

At match point in the second set, Safarova went for a forehand winner down the line which crept marginally long. The Slovakian challenged the line judge's call but a Hawkeye replay showed it was correct.

"I think the five centimetres (two inches) saved my tournament," said Li. "If she hit it in, I think my whole team on the way to the airport.

"I mean, at least I won the match, so I'm still in the tournament. I was really happy with the way I fought on the court from the first point until the last point.

"In the beginning she played very nice, very good and it was tough to find any rhythm," added the popular Li, who has more than 10 million fans on Chinese social media.

"I just tried to play at the baseline and move the ball around the court."

Playing in 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) heat, Safarova made the most of some early Li double faults to get a break in the first game and then held for a 2-0 lead.

Li, using ice to cool down barely 10 minutes into the match, held her next serve to stay in touch but Safarova was unrelenting, pushing Li around and gaining another break when the Chinese star netted a forehand.

Li, coached by Carlos Rodriguez, who used to mentor Belgian great Justine Henin, was struggling to find her range and making too many unforced errors.

Safarova held for a 5-1 lead and broke again to take the set in 27 minutes, with Li hitting just two winners and making 18 unforced errors in the set.

Li said the meltdown was due to thinking too hard and not playing her natural game.

"Women's tennis sometimes is crazy, the tour, because I was sometimes thinking too much," she said. "So I was like, 'Okay, just focus here to see what happens'."

She got her first glimmer of hope in the third game of the second set when she earned a break point, but failed to capitalise and went 2-1 down.

The Chinese number one was under big pressure and faced two break points on her next serve, but dug deep to save both and it proved to be a turning point.

She promptly broke Safarova and then held to take a 3-2 lead, before the Czech prevailed in a long sixth game to break back.

Li was again fighting to stay in the tournament and she converted a break point as Safarova served for the match.

She clung on to her serve against a Safarova onslaught and saved the match point in the 12th to send it to a tiebreak, where she found a new lease of life to ensure a third set where she proved the more resilient.

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